On Saturday evening, in front of a hundred or so people sitting in folding chairs at 159 Bleecker Street, site of anonymous Brooklyn artist collective the Bruce High Quality Foundation‘s latest installation of their anti-Biennial, the 2012 Brucennial, one of five actors in the group’s original stage musical inspired by George Orwell‘s “Animal Farm” took the hay-strewn stage. “I wanna thank all the artists for participating in the most important group show ever in history,” said Joe Kay. And, as he disappeared to get into costume, he yelled back: “Turn off your fucking cell phones!”
The house lights went down, and the only remaining light came from a giant foam pig head hung above the stage, its DIY-Tony Oursler video face staring down ominously at the audience. That contraption narrated the musical’s first two scenes in a computer-generated voice, introducing the setting, the cash-strapped Bruce High Quality Foundation University (which is also a real institution run by the Bruces), its board of chicken directors and its graduating class of pig students. While the latter optimistically set off to make it in the art world, the former grappled with their tuition-free school’s faltering finances.
Solutions to BHQFU’s situation included investing the school’s funds in the stock market and building “a state of the art architectural monstrosity,” both of which proved to be disastrous courses of action. The chicken board was left with no choice but to consider the proposal of a tiara-sporting member inexplicably named Princess Diana: charge tuition for the first time in the school’s history.
If it wasn’t already apparent by this point it now became clear that the subject of this Orwellian musical satire was the Cooper Union, the top-tier art, architecture and engineering university in the East Village, one of the last colleges in America that doesn’t charge tuition. But last year the school’s board began to entertain the possibility of introducing tuition fees for the first time in the school’s 150 year history.
On Saturday, amid hilarious music numbers like “It’s Not Easy Being Pink” and non-stop flurries of animal puns, the solution to the blatant corporate takeover of a once independent school — by a group of money-hungry dogs introduced to the tune of Snoop Dogg’s “What’s My Name?” — was to start a new one. Like the BHQF, the artist-pigs in the play launched their own university, “Pigs Organized ‘Round Kunst,” or PORKU. The show concluded with the student-professors of PORKU singing in a rousing chorus: “We only want to free your mind!”
The free production was scrappy, with clunky props made — like much of the Bruces’ work — out of foam, a modular set design composed of rectangular bales of hay, and the same five actors alternately playing pigs, chickens and dogs. But whatever it lacked in polish “Animal Farm” compensated for with a handful of great musical numbers and the same irreverent yet razor-sharp humor that characterizes all of the BHQF’s work.
The performance may have posited artist-run universities as the best solution, but a post-show announcement by the man who had been operating the lights — by clicking on and off two light switches — reiterated the urgency of the Cooper Union situation, urging spectators to visit FreeCooperUnion.com and do everything in their power to keep the school from following the example of the stage-BHQFU.
— Benjamin Sutton